A WONDERFUL start looked like being enough to secure a much-needed victory for 80 minutes but United were unable to hold on to the end against a powerful Portsmouth side.
Jordan Chapell opened the scoring within 25 seconds and the Gulls played some super stuff throughout, working tirelessly in attack and defending with huge courage at the other end.
It was almost sufficient for three points but substitute Ryan Bird intervened with a cruel leveller to give Pompey a share of the spoils.
United boss Alan Knill made three changes from the midweek defeat Burton, one enforced and two tactical. An injury to Billy Bodin allowed new loan signing from West Ham, Paul McCallum to make his full Yellow debut in attack, while Jordan Chapell was preferred to Nathan Craig in midfield.
In defence, Krystian Pearce returned from suspension to replace Thomas Cruise and there was a recall to the bench for young striker Daniel Sullivan, who was joined by goalkeeper Michael Poke, deemed fit enough to jump into the gloves of Conor Thompson as reserve custodian.
Portsmouth, meanwhile, had a slightly extended rest after their home clash with Wycombe was abandoned at half-time because of a waterlogged pitch at Fratton Park.
However, Sonny Bradley managed to pick up his fifth booking of the season and a subsequent ban before the heavens opened, so Pompey manager Guy Whittingham drafted in former United trialist Shaun Cooper to cover the defensive hole. One other change saw Simon Ferry preferred to Therry Racon.
Immediately from the kick-off, captain Lee Mansell surged forward, fed Kevin Nicholson for a long ball pumped into the box. McCallum rose highest to flick on a header for Karl Hawley.
The powerhouse forward tried to squeeze in a shot and, although his effort was blocked, the loose ball squirmed wide for Chapell to steer home a fine finish, drilling a low effort beyond Trevor Carson and in off the far post.
Barely 30 seconds on the clock and the Gulls had that crucial first goal, and credit to everyone involved for showing the intensity and desire to instantly place Portsmouth on the back-foot.
The only negative was the visitors had a full 90 minutes to recover the deficit and the dual between Pearce and Pompey’s mountainous centre-forward, Patrick Agyemang, quickly looked pivotal to Yellow hopes.
After the early excitement, both sides tried to settle in the windy conditions and the Gulls had to accept a slight edge in the possession stats for Pompey, although Pearce and O’Connor had made a solid start to proceedings.
The more the first half progressed, however, the more worrying was United’s inability to get hold off the ball, and Johnny Ertl was not far away with a long-range effort following another strong spell from the visitors.
When the Gulls did look to pose a threat, like the goal, it was Hawley running off the head of McCallum, but Pompey soon switched to the other end, where Martin Rice made his first save of the afternoon, comfortably snaffling a scuffed effort by Agyemang.
United gradually restored territorial parity as the half-hour mark was reached and McCallum definitely had the aerial measure of the Portsmouth centre-backs, giving the Gulls the different option their season craved.
The wind, perhaps more than anything, was now in control of the game, as neither side could really say they were passing the ball with genuine precision. It was an afternoon for brave hearts and Pearce was top of that list.
The half ended with McCallum finding space in the left channel and his first-time shot was only a fraction away from creeping inside the near post.
If Knill’s half-time chat was all about maintaining the momentum, every Yellow ear was listening, as the Gulls thundered out for the second period. First, Dale Tonge whipped over a cross that missed the diving head of Ade Azeez by a whisker and then Jak McCourt fizzed a superb drive just past the upright.
Pompey responded with a lovely pirouette from Ferry in midfield and then a decent cross by Ricky Holmes was glanced wide by a defensive header from O’Connor. The Gulls defended the corner extremely well, especially amid the cacophony of noise from an impressive away following.
The skies above Plainmoor were darkening and the pressure on United’s goal grew in tandem with the impending gloom. It was time for big hearts and Mansell showed his intentions with a terrific cover-tackle on John Marquis.
Rice was called into action on 63 minutes, diving low to his left to repel a stinging drive from Ertl and the best thing about his save was pushing the ball well wide of any Pompey forwards sniffing for a rebound. Whittingham then removed Ertl for the lively skills of Andy Barcham.
Portsmouth created their best chance of the afternoon just as the rain started to lash down. Right-back Yassin Moutaouakil danced inside from the flank and squared a pass for Jed Wallace, who somehow stabbed the ball over from five yards.
United’s injury curse then took another painful twist, as McCallum hobbled off with a groin problem. While Knill decided on his replacement, Mansell tested Carson’s handling with a decent effort and Azeez poked a shot wide.
Damien Mozika was the eventual choice, with Azeez moving forward into a more central position, allowing the French debutant to help out Mansell and McCourt in the engine room.
Bird came on for Marquis in Pompey’s next dice-roll but the Yellows were doing an excellent of keeping their dangerous opponents at arm’s length. The final ten minutes, however, were bound to be nervy.
Chapell was at the centre of the drama with a lung-bursting run down the right but Portsmouth were able to clear and manufacture a shot for Barcham, deflected into the arms of Rice.
Moments later, Pompey were level, as Wallace found space for a cross that found Bird at the back-post, and the sub did well to stab the ball agonisingly past Rice and over the line for a heartbreaking equaliser.
Courtney Cameron was instantly introduced for the shattered Chapell, while Therry Racon replaced Ferry for the visitors.
The harsh reality was United would now welcome a point, especially with Pompey piling forward in search of a winner, but Agyemang thankfully failed to threaten when sliding on to a low cross from Wallace.
The endeavour of Cameron won the Gulls a corner in injury time but Nicholson’s delivery floated inches over the head of O’Connor. Pompey had the final attempt of an emotional day but the outstanding combination of Pearce and O’Connor cleared for a well-earned draw.
United (4-4-2): 13 Martin Rice; 2 Dale Tonge, 5 Krystian Pearce, 29 Anthony O’Connor, 3 Kevin Nicholson; 23 Ade Azeez, 7 Lee Mansell (capt), 17 Jak McCourt, 12 Jordan Chapell (11 Courtney Cameron 83); 9 Karl Hawley, 19 Paul McCallum (36 Damien Mozika 73). Substitutes (not used): 1 Michael Poke (GK), 20 Nathan Craig, 21 Thomas Cruise, 26 Elliot Benyon, 31 Daniel Sullivan.
(4-4-2): 40 Trevor Carson; 2 Yassin Moutaouakil, 3 Bondz N’Gala, 5 Joe Devera, 20 Shaun Cooper; 35 Jed Wallace, 16 Simon Ferry (31 Therry Racon 83), 13 Johannes Ertl (capt) (7 Andy Barcham 65), 11 Ricky Holmes; 23 Patrick Agyemang, 32 John Marquis (18 Ryan Bird 76). Substitutes
(not used): 1 Phil Smith (GK), 4 Danny East, 8 Romain Padovani, 15 Gavin Mahon.
Booked: Marquis 25, Cooper 79
Referee: Andy Woolmer
Attendance: 3,843 (1,497 away)